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Saudis Ready for Gas Attack, Say Deaths Would be Few

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Civil defense officials have ordered more than 2 million gas masks and are preparing to distribute them at fire stations and shopping centers to protect against a chemical weapons attack that could come with as little as five minutes’ warning, authorities said Tuesday.

The government has also set up evacuation centers for every major city in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province and fitted sirens on a fleet of vehicles to warn residents in the event of an attack.

Civil defense authorities said they are confident they would be able to limit casualties if Iraq were to attack Saudi population centers with chemical weapons, though to what extent depends on the warning time and the steps people take to protect themselves.

“I think if all the people stayed inside the house, I think no more of a problem than 10 or 15 dead, (of the) people who stay outside,” said Col. Mohammed Magrabi, head of Saudi Arabia’s 3,000-strong civil defense forces.

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“But in our religion, if my God wants a man to die, yes, he will die, if he is inside the door or outside the door.”

In a tour of civil defense facilities for foreign reporters, Saudi officials displayed fleets of ambulances, fire trucks, vans, bulldozers and cargo vehicles, along with warehouses packed with firefighting equipment.

Training classes are under way for a new volunteer civil defense force of 1,000 recruits, which will be supplemented by an additional 1,000 in the coming weeks, Magrabi said.

The siren-equipped vehicles are to roam the streets in case of an imminent attack, warning people to go indoors.

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“We will tell them if he’s outside, cover your head and just try to run away against the wind,” said Capt. Jamil Arbaein. “Get inside. Close the door, shut off the air conditioner, close the windows. If there’s a mask, put it on. But you have to get inside as soon as possible. It shouldn’t be more than one minute.”

Civil defense headquarters is connected by telephone hot line to air force radar stations, allowing sirens to be sounded all over the province if an incoming missile or aircraft is sighted. Magrabi estimates that the authorities would have five minutes’ warning time of an incoming missile, and more time with aircraft.

Magrabi said residents of Eastern province, which is nearest the Kuwaiti border, where tens of thousands of Iraqi troops are massed, have seemed to be reassured since the civil defense authorities distributed brochures telling them what to do in the event of a chemical attack and published statements minimizing the likelihood of an attack on Saudi cities.

“The danger of the eastern region being hit with a chemical event is very low,” Magrabi said, “because we have enough weapons to destroy all (Iraq’s) weapons in this area. Maybe we will get one or two (direct hits). But this is not enough to make it a dangerous area.”

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